Defending Raje and Swaraj: Indian PM Modi promised us the moon but encouraged corruption


July 4, 2015

NEW DELHI – At the height of the 2G scam in 2011, the main defence for the UPA and the principal accused A Raja came from a legal mind – Kapil Sibal.

July 4, 2015

NEW DELHI – At the height of the 2G scam in 2011, the main defence for the UPA and the principal accused A Raja came from a legal mind – Kapil Sibal.

He said that there was no loss in 2G as the government decided not to auction spectrum to ensure affordability of telecom services. Terming the then CAG audit "completely flawed", Sibal said that "Government policy is formulated with a view to maximizing public welfare, and not merely to maximize Government revenues."

From the UPA's perspective, this "zero loss theory" was right because telecom services in India under them were dirt cheap. However, what Kapil hid from his defence was that Raja allowed his cronies to jump the queue and make money.

The UPA defence for Manmohan Singh's alleged involvement in the coal scam also was strictly legal although morally he was party to skimming away national wealth. Questioning a special court order that summoned Singh, his lawyer said something quite similar: "there may be a fault in decision making, but there is no evidence to show that there was an abuse of power and moreover, taking a decision in government is not an offence."

Fielding glib lawyers to defend its objectionable misdemeanors was the UPA's ploy to legally sanitize corruption. Plugging possible legal loopholes and to present a defence that sounds logical to the general population, when read with the provisions of Indian Penal Code (IPC) or Prevention of Corruption Act (PCA) was a strategy that the Congress and the UPA frequently indulged in to get away with charges of corruption and impropriety. In the process, they sought to obfuscate the perceptional and moral angles of corruption and impropriety.

The BJP seems to have learnt the technique of legal sanitization of corruption, impropriety and political misdemeanor from the UPA. With two of its top women leaders directly under fire for misuse of office to benefit a rich man who is evading the due process of Indian law, and two others who abused authority to delay the flights of State owned Air India, all that the BJP put forward so far has been the same legal excuses that people like Sibal resorted to. Perhaps, what they learned from the UPA helped them to be pre-emptive in legally sanitizing their action.

By being silent and allowing his party and cabinet colleagues to justify office-holding leaders such as Sushma Swaraj and Vasundhara Raje by citing legal reasons, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who rode to power on the promise of corruption free governance and socio-economic development, is doing great disservice to his pet cause. World over, as wily politicians and officials are getting smarter in legally tenable misuse of office and power, the effort is to go beyond the conventional definition of corruption as the 'abuse of public office for private gain' and see the big picture.

Modern literature on corruption is very clear that, whether it's "grand", "petty" or "political", the phenomenon needs a more nuanced interpretation. It's not without reason that one of the corruption indicators used globally is the Corruption Perceptions Index which rate countries, "by their perceived levels of corruption, as determined by expert assessments and opinion surveys". In other words corruption, is also perceptional issue – wherein perceptions do matter. That's precisely why in the eyes of people, Sibal's legal defence didn't wash and his party bit the dust.

Let's take the example of Swaraj. Legal hairsplitting may or may not absolve her of a wrongdoing under the 13(1)(d) of PCA, but the sequence of events, based on available evidence, establishes that her husband and daughter had been on the rolls of Lalit Modi when she violated official rules and procedures to help him evade Indian law. Till Lalit Modi's father KK Modi confirmed on Times Now that Sushma's husband Swaraj Kaushal was a paid a retainer, the latter's argument was that his work was pro-bono. His aim was to establish that there was pecuniary gain for his family and hence no quid-pro-quo. But, after the disclosure of the payment, it is clear that the husband, and thereby his family earned money from Lalit Modi while Swaraj helped him. The communication on the appointment of Kaushal as Modi's representative in his company made the evidence against Swaraj watertight.

Even going by the basic tenets of corruption and impropriety, Narendra Modi, should have asked her to step down because he is the one with a sworn allergy to graft. Instead, he allowed pugnacious spokesmen to defend her on legal grounds and ask people to go to court if they had a problem. Politicians asking people to go to court, when there is a perception of corruption, is a huge failing, particularly for Modi. The arguments in support of Raje also were similar.

The question is not about legality, but about immorality and impropriety because people and institutions who study public policy do recognize that there corruption can be "legal". They argue for a new concept, which perhaps the corruption crusaders of the BJP talking are not aware of.

A World Bank paper had studied the phenomenon of "legal and illegal corruption" and tested certain assumptions using a mathematical model, which were found to be true. Based on the results it said that the world needs a "new corruption concept not constrained by public-sector, illegality restrictions" wherein "corruption is seen as a deal between people for the exchange of favors over time (in the most appealing example two agents, one from the private sector, the other from the public sector, trade favors over time, with the public sector agent making use of her public office investment)." (Public sector here is a generic term denoting the government). Now, read this paragraph carefully along with the details of the Swaraj and the Raje cases.

Narendra Modi, by sticking to the age old idea of corruption in legal terms and allowing his men to laugh away public perception has lost a great opportunity to prove his pre-poll promise of "zero-tolerance to corruption" right. The world has long since begun looking at the big picture of the malady because those who indulge in corruption and impropriety are smart enough to plug the legal loopholes in advance.

As Transparency International says: "In a democratic system, offices and institutions lose their legitimacy when they're misused for private advantage. It is extremely challenging to develop accountable political leadership in a corrupt climate." Moreover, "corruption corrodes the social fabric of society. It undermines people's trust in the political system, in its institutions and its leadership. A distrustful or apathetic public can then become yet another hurdle to challenging corruption." As Firstpost had noted earlier the UN Convention Against Corruption, to which India is a signatory, has listed favoritism, nepotism and clientelism; abuse of discretionary powers; exploiting conflict of interests; and political contributions as examples of corruption.

By setting safe legal pathways for its leaders, the BJP is following the same immoral path that the UPA pursued, that too after promising the sun, moon and stars.

Courtesy: Firstpost